Hollywood history in a month

8 November 2010

Turner Classic Movies — that stalwart throwback of basic cable TV, the channel that still doesn’t have commercials or flashy series, is doing us all a public service this month:  they’re showing a new seven-part documentary on the history of Hollywood and moviemaking in America called “Moguls and Movie Stars.”  Tonight starting at 7pm EST/6pm CST they’ll show two one-hour episodes back-to-back:  “Peepshow Pioneers,” about the earliest days of film in the twentieth century, and “The Birth of Hollywood.”  Subsequent episodes will premier each Monday night until mid-December.  Best of all, tonight’s installments will be followed by a series of early silents that discuss race in film, starting with “Traffic in Souls” (1913) and “The Indian Massacre” (1912).

I’ve never had the luck to see “Traffic in Souls” before, but I’ve read about it — it played a big role in the early 20th-c. hysteria over white slavery.  White slavery had worked right-thinking members of the public into a lather since the mid-1880s, but had peaked in the 1910s with the passage of the famous Mann Act, or the White Slave Traffic Act, that forbade the interstate traffic of women “for immoral purposes.”  Like many public hysterias, this one got a good deal of its oomph from racist fantasies that nice white girls were being captured for sexual slavery by dastardly dark men (mostly Chinese and Jews); movies like “Traffic in Souls” and others were intended to keep fear alive, a la Stephen Colbert, so the public wouldn’t forget how terrible such crimes were.  Reputedly, however, film studios gradually cottoned on to the fact that audiences saw these films as titillating, so they got pulled from release.  No wonder that by the time Rudolph Valentino played “The Sheik” in the 1920s, women were well-primed to find his masterful quasi-rape of white women to be so wonderful as to be damn near pornographic.

TCM is following these two films up with D. W. Griffith’s classic “Birth of a Nation” (1915), that histrionically racist portrayal of the South and the KKK — one of those films that can only point out how much the 1910s were a foreign country.  But don’t despair, for immediately afterward will be shown one of the earliest films by a prolific black director, Oscar Micheaux, whose “Within Our Gates” (1920) exposes the nation’s history of lynching and mixed-race blending only loosely covered up by extreme white racism.  (I’m also glad to see, with this opening intertitle, that he challenges Northern fantasies of being altogether superior to those hicks in the South.)  I’ve never seen any of Micheaux’s films, and I’m looking forward to it.  It’s always good to know that there were prominent Hollywood directors who talked back to the movies’ racism even at one of the darkest points in American history. 

I know, after posts on “Buffy” and Julie Taymor this stuff is hopelessly geeky — and with that, I hope you’re as excited as I am.

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